You are hereDogmatizing about Eternal Conscious Torment in Hell
Dogmatizing about Eternal Conscious Torment in Hell
by Kurt Simmons
We were recently forced out of the Mathison Response (together with several other writers) in a power play that attempted to compel all contributors to sign a doctrinal statement affirming their belief in Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). We have made it our policy for years not to be drawn into this debate. We have regularly turned away inquiries with the answer that we are not expressing opinions on the topic. It is Preterism we are preaching and would prefer not to be distracted with this question, or see the movement further divided by it. Our conviction is that this is not an essential of the gospel and should not be made a test of fellowship or orthodoxy. We believe that every man should be persuaded in his own mind and conscience, without fear of reprisal or retaliation. We want to maintain our policy of not being identified with either camp in this issue. However, in order to demonstrate the weakness of ECT and why it should not, indeed, cannot be made a test of fellowship, we offer the following points in evidence:
1 – There are only about 4-6 passages in the New Testament that directly speak to the idea of ECT. Of these, FOUR occur in Revelation amongst much symbology. (Rev. 14:10; 19:3, 21; 20:10) Sound principles of hermeneutics prohibit establishing any essential teaching of the church upon difficult or obscure passages, which cannot first be demonstrated elsewhere in passages that are obvious or plain. Because the symbolic language of Revelation is “difficult and obscure,” it cannot properly serve as the foundational source for the idea of ECT. That leaves only about two passages outside of Revelation that suggest the idea of ECT. The first is Matt. 25:46, where the Lord says that the wicked would go away to “everlasting punishment.” This passage is susceptible of numerous interpretations and we feel it is sufficiently ambiguous to prohibit dogmatizing about ECT. Heb. 6:2 speaks of “eternal judgment.” The same word occurs in both places (aionion).
The sense of aionion in Heb. 6:2 is “irreversible;” the judgment happens once for all. It is not pronounced again and again for all perpetuity. Likewise, the execution of a criminal happens once for all; it is eternal (aionion). This appears to be the meaning of aionion as used in Matt. 25:46; the translation there of aionion as “everlasting” punishment probably reflects the doctrinal bias of the translators. The sense and import of the term is eternal, not ceaseless or perpetual. The other passage is Jude 7 where Sodom and Gomorrah are said to have suffered the vengeance of “eternal fire.” Again, the same word is used (aionion). We ask “are the fires that enveloped Sodom and Gomorrah still burning?” Obviously not; the language is plainly poetic, like we see in so many passages of the prophets. Besides, even if it were granted that the fire is somehow eternal and unquenchable this would not be evidence that those it consumes are eternal and suffer endlessly. Concerning Rev. 19:3, David Chilton said: “The phrase [her smoke rises up forever and ever] cannot be pressed into service as a literal description of the eternal state of the wicked in general. The actual flames that consumed ‘Babylon’ burned out long ago; but her punishment was eternal. She will never be resurrected.” We think this is equally true of Matt. 25:46 and Jude 7 – the idea is that the punishment is eternal, not ceaseless or perpetual. Perhaps there are one or two verses more the advocates of ECT can marshal. However, these are the main texts and, as we have seen, at best they are questionable. Can we in good conscience make ECT an “essential” of the gospel upon such equivocal evidence?